With the Fourth of July upon us, it’s time once again to light firecrackers, eat hot dogs, and join the long line of family and friends sticking their bare hands into the potato chip bag as they fill their plates with food. Perhaps not everyone is as grossed out at this scene as, say, me, but should we be?
Yes and no…kind of.
One of the main ways that food illnesses are contracted and spread is through unwashed hands. After a person uses the restroom, his or her hands absolutely need to be washed. Failing to do so leaves undesirable debris (you know what I’m talking about) on their hands that can spread to other things they touch. When a hand that fits this description goes into a communal food source, everyone else that eats that food becomes susceptible to ingesting dangerous bacteria.
The classic example of this is the communal bar peanuts. Though there are no hard facts on the dangers of communal peanuts or potato chips, there have been some interesting studies performed. And besides that, Johnny Depp mentioned on a 2005 Tonight Show appearance that a study revealed that there was 27 different types of urine found in a single bowl of bar peanuts. Captain Jack wouldn’t lie to us, would he?
It should also be noted that though hand sanitizer is better than nothing at all, it does not replace old-fashioned hand washing because sanitizers can be ineffective against viruses (such as Norovirus and Hepatitis A, caused by fecal matter).
There are a couple minor (very minor) reasons to not be completely repulsed by a long line of people sticking their adulterated hands into a single bag of chips. For one, the human body needs bacteria. Consuming bacteria can help build up a resistance to other, more harmful bacteria. In addition to this, salty foods can prevent the growth of bacteria. Salt is used as a preservative that guards against bacteria growth in foods like ham and could sometimes do the same for a bag of chips or a bowl of peanuts.
Taking all of this into consideration, it should be concluded that it is unwise to eat a food that has passed through the hands of a large group of people without apprehension. When several people get together in the outdoors to eat in the company of one another, it’s likely that contaminated hands are in their midst. This opens the door to possible illnesses.
There are a couple of ways to combat this practice without coming across like a total control freak. For one, at your Fourth of July party there can be a designated individual wearing gloves who will disperse people’s chips from the bag for them as they come through the line. This offers a service while, perhaps, hiding the intention of keeping others’ hands out of the bag. The other way this can be avoided is to put a friendly sign up next to the bag asking everyone to pick it up and dump the chips out instead of rolling their hands all around the chips, touching every single one of them in the process (that last part can be left out).
If you don’t want to do either one of those things, you could host your party miles away from the nearest toilet or set up a hand washing station at the start of the food line. You could also not serve chips, though that could possibly be the most un-American activity at your party.
When it comes to food safety on Independence Day, don’t ruin the party by being a panicked germaphobe. But whatever you do, don’t let your friends stick their hands in the chip bag.
Learn more tips for preventing foodborne illness at your backyard barbecue in our article about picnic food safety.
— Jeremy Howard